With Millions Pumped into U.S. Senate Race, Voters Near Their Limit

GeorgeAnne Sprinkle says she’s inclined to vote for Begich but all the ads, calls and visits are turning her off.

Anchorage resident GeorgeAnne Sprinkle opened her door in College Park this weekend to a stranger who asked for her by name. Her lips were pressed together in controlled fury as the door-knocker started his patter. When he handed her a flyer supporting the re-election of Sen. Begich, Sprinkle kind of lost it.

Download Audio

“This has got to be the fifth BLEEPing time that someone from Begich has got to the BLEEP damn house! It is so annoying, not to mention phone calls and internet ads! And BLEEPing BLEEP, that doesn’t even count Dan Sullivan! DONE! You’re not going to sway my vote! So annoying!

Rob Gruss, a labor activist from Ohio, shrugged off the rant. He explained he is from a group called Working Alaska, not either of the campaigns. If that was supposed to have a calming effect, it didn’t work. The thing is, Sprinkle, a professional organic gardener, already supports Begich. She needs no convincing. Still, she says the relentless messages follow her everywhere. Even at the supermarket, they’re piped into the sound system. And pro-Sullivan door-knockers have come by repeatedly, too.

“And in fact,  the smear campaign is causing so much fatigue, it makes me want to not vote. BLEEP it!” she said. She apologized for her language repeatedly but couldn’t seem to stop.

She’s hardly the only one fed up with the race. The Begich and Sullivan campaigns have spent more than $14 million so far. Independent groups that support one or the other have spent another $32 million. That comes to more than $180 per likely Alaska voter, and many don’t like the effect it’s having.

Heavy Internet users seem especially frustrated. Chris Hines, 33, an IT director, says he’s getting so many ads about the Senate race it almost feels like harassment.

“I mean it’s just overload, especially when the ads are exactly the same, over and over and over,” he said.  “It’s getting to the point where I can recite them word for word.”

He doesn’t tune in to TV or radio, opting for YouTube and Pandora instead. But, with every online turn, he’s faced with the same few ads, all of them negative, and Hines says, devoid of substance.

“Most of them are unskippable. It’s infuriating,” he said.

Hines says he generally votes Republican, but he says he won’t vote for Sullivan or Begich, because of their endless ads.

“Yeah, they’re backingfiring for sure, with me at least,” Hines says. “Because there’s just no way somebody who has ruined my Internet browsing experience for the last two months, I’m not going to vote for them. I don’t care what platform they’re on.”

UAA Journalism Professor Mark Trahant says his students despise the online Senate ads, and part of the problem is the ads themselves.

“They’re traditional negative ad campaigns that work great for television but will not work with Millennials,” Trahant says. “And I think they’re absolutely undermining their own message by using them.”

Millennial voters – adults in their early 30s and younger – are used to the style of “The Daily Show” and John Oliver, so they expect messages with both humor and meaning, Trahant says. Instead they’re getting clubbed over the head with downbeat monotony.

Even teens too young to vote are pretty much forced to watch Senate ads whenever they go online. Allison Haynes, a junior at West High, says whether they’re online for fun or for school work, the ads are unavoidable.

“Maybe even during school,” she said. “If a teacher wants to show a YouTube video — maybe a science one, or a French music video, language video — a little negative ad – Dan Sullivan! Mark Begich! – pops up.”

More than the sheer number of the ads, she says it’s the negativity that shocks people her age. Haynes says to them it smacks of a big taboo: bullying.

“It’s a huge emphasis, teaching anti-bullying campaigns for our generation, so when you see people making negative comments, they’re like ‘Well, we’ve been taught that that’s not OK. What’s going on with this? Why are politicians exempt from these lessons that we have learned from our schools that they’re allowed to make negative comments and lies?’” Haynes says.

Haynes is a volunteer for Youth Vote, a group organizing an Anchorage-wide mock election. She says young people listen for the sponsorship and know who is paying for the ads.

“It’s not just from the candidates. It’s from the PACs, right?,” she says. “The Lower 48 is coming in. And that’s another reason kids are disinclined to like those ads, because they’re like ‘this is not from Alaska.’

The New York Times reports that a Republican digital strategy firm in Viriginia this summer bought all of YouTube’s inventory in Alaska for the final weeks of the campaign. If the strategy backfires, as Prof. Trahant predicts, that could hurt Sullivan. But, if Millennials are so put off by the barrage of ads that they don’t vote at all, that would likely hurt Begich, since young voters lean Democratic.

Until the ads stop, Chris Hines, the IT director, is deploying Internet trickery to defend himself. He’s using a VPN service at home. Essentially, he’s routing his Internet traffic through another country – usually the Netherlands — so no one can see he’s in Alaska. It’s slower, and it means he has to sit through a lot of ads in Dutch but he doesn’t care, as long as they’re not about Begich or Sullivan.